The Human Spirit: Water in Jerusalem

“There’s no city on earth like Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem's Old City and the Temple Mount (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Jerusalem's Old City and the Temple Mount
Water and Jerusalem: history, archeology, the conflict rush to mind. The ancient water tunnel used by King David; the dramatic meeting of King Hezekiah’s architects as they dug from two ends. Cisterns – some so large, modern architects have turned them into computer rooms. Donkeys lugging water in sacks. The 100,000 civilians cut off from their water supply in the War of Independence. And, of course, the constant anti-Israel clamor that includes charges that we deny Palestinians drinking water.
With all this noise in my head, I decide to see what I could do to help my friend, let’s call her Amira, who wants to get an account and regular water in her taps.
Amira’s problems began several years ago when she and her husband cashed in all their assets, borrowed from all their relatives and bought an apartment near the Mount of Olives. They have five children and were living in cramped conditions in another Jerusalem neighborhood.
The deal sounded too good to be true, and it was. The contractor turned out to be unscrupulous. Their apartment was added illegally. Amira, a special education teacher in a kindergarten, and her husband, who does odd jobs, went into further debt paying two lawyers to rescue their property.
At first they thought the apartment would be demolished. Amira’s face was bloated from weeping, but then demolition was postponed and the family moved in, even though water hadn’t been connected. They made a deal with a neighbor who connected them to her water supply.
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 Last month, Amira mentioned to me that her water bill was NIS 1,000, a huge sum. Her neighbor had obviously gone from doing her a favor to charging enough to buy her own children swimming- pool memberships.
Just to be clear: Amira, the contractor who tricked her, the first of their two lawyers and the neighbor are all Jerusalem Arabs. This isn’t a story about Big Bad Israel.
“Let’s just go to Hagihon,” I suggest with bravado, even though I’m not sure this is going to work. After all, I know Amira’s apartment is illegal and I remembered from my own experience decades ago of needing copious documents, among them proof that our contractor had paid off water bills he’d accumulated while building, before we were connected in the western part of the city.
In 1996, the Jerusalem Municipality set up the water utility Hagihon, named for the gushing stream that had been the ultimate source of Jerusalem water.
Hagihon became an independent company in 2003. It supplies water, sewerage and drainage services to the greater Jerusalem area, serving about a million residents of Jerusalem, Mevaseret Zion and Abu Ghosh. There’s a website in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
I look up customer service on the website and send a note in English to the person in charge. His name is listed as Shimshon Yeshayahu. I explain Amira’s problem. I get a letter back asking for additional details. I send everything I know and ask if we can come in for a meeting the following Tuesday morning.
No problem, Yeshayahu writes back. See you Tuesday.
SO AMIRA and I meet outside Hagihon’s office in the Talpiot neighborhood.
She brings along a teenage son.
Yeshayahu greets us. We’re assigned a clerk who speaks perfect Hebrew and Arabic. This is a treat because with my poor Arabic and Amira’s poor Hebrew, there’s often lack of clarity between us.
Amira has to call her husband at work for more information, but the records are soon located and printed out.
With these, we’re ushered into the office of Eli Cohen, deputy director of the utility, and offered something to drink.
To break the ice, I say how water must be a challenge in Jerusalem, remembering a conversation I’d heard between the late mayors, Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek and New York’s Ed Koch.
“You think you have problems,” said Kollek. “My water system goes back 3,000 years!” Cohen smiles and explains that now we actually have a modern system in Jerusalem, that we have the best water in Israel, and that we consult for other countries. But I’m right about challenges.
“There’s no city on earth like Jerusalem,” he says.
When you live in the Western part of the city, as I do, there’s more or less a sense of law and order. It’s not perfect – we all have a neighbor who added to his porch on communal property or an acquaintance who built subterranean rooms without a permit. When you cross to the eastern part of Jerusalem, chaos creeps in.
Hence, it wasn’t as crazy as it seemed to me that Amira, who works for the Jerusalem Municipality, didn’t hire a lawyer to check the building permits of the contractor before buying the apartment, or that she and her family would make private water arrangements.
The printout in Cohen’s hands confirms that Amira’s apartment was added illegally to, it turns out, a building that is illegal in the first place. What’s strangest is that everyone in the building except for her has a water meter, presumably installed illegally by a contractor but nonetheless read by Hagihon meter readers.
This may not be ideal, but it’s better than the situation in other parts of town – such as nearly all of the residences of Shuafat – where water is siphoned illegally from Hagihon pipes.
About 15 percent of the city is getting water for free. (There’s a possibility that the illegal meters may be part of a one-time gesture on the part of Hagihon passing out 12,000 water meters, not officially registered, in an attempt to get a sense of how much water was being used.) Water can’t be turned off.
That is the law.
I realize that when dealing with water in Jerusalem, I’m in over my head.
And frankly, Amira’s situation doesn’t look promising.
But this is a story with a happy ending.
COHEN ASSURES us that Hagihon is inclined to be flexible to help families in need. The infrastructure for water exists for her building, but he’ll have to dispatch an engineer to see if she can have her own water supply with her own meter.
“You think water is a problem?” says Cohen. “Sewerage is the real problem.
Illegal buildings are sometimes built on top of manholes and then there’s a blockage and we have to go into a [hostile] neighborhood and start digging up people’s homes to get to their sewerage.”
We leave feeling optimistic but still somewhat doubtful. Indeed, within two weeks Hagihon technicians have installed Amira’s water lines and a shiny new meter. It’s the only legal meter in the building.
Amira tells her neighbor that she won’t need to get water from her any more. The neighbor has a funny look on her face. “No one knows how we did it,” Amira says.
Amira wants me to come over and have coffee to celebrate, but I beg off. I have a new nagging worry. Who is going to start wondering how Amira and her family got legal water? Who is going to believe the story about her going to Hagihon “with a friend” and simply asking for a meter? Certainly not all those NGOs that make their living bashing Israel.
Eli Cohen is right. There’s no other city on earth like Jerusalem.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.